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Distance learning a ‘unique’ challenge for students with disabilities

Target 12

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – Distance learning was especially tough on families of students with disabilities last spring, as roughly half of parents reported their children didn’t make much progress and would prefer in-person learning this fall, according to a new survey.

The Rhode Island Parent Information Network, or RIPIN, in July asked more than 400 parents of students with disabilities a series of questions about distance learning, when the coronavirus crisis forced education out of classrooms and into people’s homes.

The survey results released Thursday showed the at-home learning method was disruptive to students with disabilities and varying needs, as 52% of parents said their children didn’t make sufficient progress last spring.

At the same time, parents found their lives upended, with more than 80% of respondents saying their children required adult support most, if not all, of the time. Another 13% said adult support was necessary some of the time, according to the results.

“Some of these parents are working, some are nurses, some are teachers, who can’t dedicate attention to their child during the day, and it just creates really impossible challenges for those families,” RIPIN Executive Director Samuel Salganik said during an interview with Target 12.

The report comes as districts are scrambling with only a few weeks left until the first day of school to come up with plans to educate the state’s roughly 143,500 students. And because students with Individualized Education Programs, or IEPs, make up nearly 16% of the overall student population, Salganik argues their needs must be incorporated into the planning process now rather than later.

Otherwise, he said, families of students with disabilities could be left hanging in the balance, especially if districts suddenly shut down because of a COVID-19 outbreak, forcing the resumption of full-time distance learning.

“We’re asking districts to really incorporate these students’ diverse needs into their plans, and to think hard about lining up the resources necessary to execute on those plans.”

IEPs are designed to be unique to each student’s needs, but they often include similar types of speech and occupational therapies, physical education and other special programs. Prior to COVID-19, special educators would typically provide those services in-person, adding to the challenges of learning from home when the onset of the pandemic abruptly ended in-person services.

Only 43% of respondents said their children received access to the services and supports outlined in their IEPs. Another 33% said some of those services were provided, while 23% reported they did not have access to those services at all, according to the survey.

On a brighter note, parents were generally pleased with the communication they received from teachers related to their children’s IEPs, with nearly two-thirds responding they were either very or somewhat satisfied.

But given the challenges at home, Salgnik said it was no surprise the survey found roughly half of parents prefer their children return to school in the fall, assuming appropriate safety measures are in place. Another third said they wanted some type of mix and 16% said they wanted to stick with distance learning.

Examined more closely, however, the survey showed that those parents who wanted to continue with distance learning had other concerns on their minds besides educational attainment.

“Among the parents who preferred all distance learning, 78.7% indicated that their child and/or someone else in the household had a health concern that would prevent the child from returning to school in person,” according to the survey.

A review of district plans for learning this fall shows a variety of strategies when it comes to students with disabilities. In Providence, educators have proposed an adaptive plan, suggesting the schools review each IEP based on progress made last year – along with parent input – and then “adjust accordingly.”

“All students who are differently abled will receive aligned services in the unique scenarios they face,” Superintendent Harrison Peters wrote in the district’s 76-page reopening plan. “As much as possible, teachers will ensure students who are differently-abled access grade-level learning with their peers.”

In Narragansett, the district has proposed a more specific plan, including “distance learning labs,” which are cubicle-like office spaces spread six feet apart where students with disabilities can come learn in-person, even if part of the school must be shut down.

“If the district is unable to be at 100% at some point, students who had difficulty engaging online will be bussed to school and assigned an office space in a lab,” Superintendent Peter Cummings wrote in the district’s plan. “Students will have technology and all of the resources needed to participate in their distance learning courses. Certified staff, paras and social emotional services will be available to monitor, assist and guide students through their online learning.”  

Salganik said RIPIN staff members are currently reviewing the dozens of district plans currently proposed for the fall, and they will continue to advocate that educators and administrators give careful consideration to students with disabilities – along with their parents.

The survey showed many parents were concerned with their children’s social and emotional well-being as a result of the distance learning last spring, which is something Salganik said should not be repeated.

The public health crisis, he added, has raised new challenges for a group of Rhode Islanders already struggling with education, so getting the necessary resources in order before the school year starts is paramount to ensuring students with disabilities don’t fall further behind.

“Many of them are already behind in terms of academic progress, outcomes, graduation rates, things that we consider important markers of success in education,” Salganik said. “Another year of not making progress – it jeopardizes their futures.”

Eli Sherman ( is a Target 12 investigative reporter for WPRI 12. Follow him on Twitter and on Facebook.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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